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Trump and Pompeo stir new suspicion over U.S.-Saudi Arabia dealings

President Donald Trump at the White House on

President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski

Secretary of scandal?

Suspicions of corruption at the State Department have grown since Friday when Trump fired the inspector general assigned to monitor its operations under Secretary Mike Pompeo.

First it emerged that the official, Steve Linick, was looking into whether Pompeo misused a taxpayer-funded political appointee for personal errands, sometimes for Pompeo's wife. But on Monday, another layer of intrigue was added to the unexplained firing. Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Linick was well into probing the president's effort to sell weapons worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia without congressional approval.

“We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed," Engel (D-Bronx) said. Meanwhile Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a Trump ally, demanded details, saying the president did not include an explanation as required when he gave Congress a 30-day notice of the firing. Grassley said the president's public claim of having "lost confidence" in Linick is insufficient, under a federal law on inspectors general enacted 12 years ago.

Linick is far from the only professional targeted for dismissal. Trump has carried out a series of retaliatory firings against assigned government watchdogs. As for Linick, Trump on Monday issued a vague "I-don't-know-him" denial and said it was Pompeo who wanted him fired. Pompeo in turn accused Linick of trying to "undermine" him but didn't say how. 

The Saudi rulers, who maintain cozy relations with Trump and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and adviser, use U.S. weaponry against civilians in Yemen, The New York Times reports. Pompeo plays a subordinate role in foreign affairs. During the impeachment hearings and trial, he sidestepped the matter of how Trump's personal lawyer usurped State Department terrain for campaign purposes in Ukraine. 

On Monday, the administration delivered other bad news on the Saudi front. The White House treaded lightly in the wake of a jihad murder of three U.S. service members at a Navy air station in Pensacola, Florida, last December. But FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr now say the 21-year-old shooter, a Royal Saudi Air Force member in a U.S. training program, had "significant ties" to al-Qaida. Wray said evidence "shows that the Pensacola attack was actually the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation by a longtime [al-Qaida] associate."

Whether and how that affects relations between the U.S. and the kingdom remains unclear. This comes at a time when some jailed Saudis are pushing for release by hiring Trump-connected lobbyists.

Trump's wild drug pitch

Is Trump really taking hydroxychloroquine? All we can know for sure is that he says so. At the same time, Trump also says he has tested negative for coronavirus. The antimalaria drug is still unproven to treat coronavirus, even as Trump and right-wing media promote it as if to make a political point.

"I happen to be taking it ... right now, yeah," he told reporters on Monday — despite cautions culled from studies about a risk of bad side effects. He said he started using it "a couple of weeks ago," after hearing "a lot of good stories" about it. He said he requested it from a White House doctor. "I'm taking the zinc and the hydroxy," Trump claimed. "I hope to not be able to take it soon, because you know, I hope they come up with some answer. But I think people should be allowed to.”

The largest study of its kind so far shows that hydroxychloroquine doesn't work on coronavirus and could cause heart damage. Another in Brazil was halted after some patients developed arrhythmia. Dr. Richard Bright, the government virologist now known as a whistleblower, testified last week at a congressional hearing that he fought what he saw as the White House's ill-advised promotion of the drug, which also is used to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders.

Control, use of aid in doubt

A $500 billion Treasury Department fund created by the CARES Act in March to help stabilize the economy has lent out barely any money, according to an initial report issued by a new Congressional Oversight Commission. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell are expected to face questions Tuesday from the Senate Banking Committee. Other funds established so far have seen greater use.

The commission itself remains without a leader nearly two months after it was established. House Democrats and Senate Republicans haven't agreed on a chairperson. This leaves that panel, also created by the CARES Act, rudderless as the government prepares to distribute unprecedented sums. "If the commission is not functioning — which it is not — then there is no oversight" on a huge part of the rescue, John Coates, a professor of law and economics at Harvard Law School, told The Associated Press.

Nursing home troubles

The Trump administration set out guidelines that called for nursing homes to go slowly in reopening to visitors, recommending that they lift restrictions more slowly than the communities that surround them.

All around the nation, coronavirus has hit these facilities and the elderly the hardest. The federal government is still collecting information about coronavirus-related fatalities in nursing homes. Inspection reports show that homes run by Life Care Centers of America, a large national chain, violated federal standards meant to stop the outbreak of diseases even after COVID-19 began spreading.

State-regulated homes' handling of the virus response have been a particular source of contention in New York.

Overall, the U.S. COVID-19 death toll topped 90,000 on Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

Still no 'Obamagate'

Trump wants as many of his fans as possible to believe that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, committed some kind of crime. But on Monday, even Trump's most loyal "Russiagate" denier, Barr, who's been trying to delegitimize prosecutions of Trump associates, would not fuel the president's "Obamagate" canard.

Barr said in public remarks that he does not expect a current Justice Department investigation involving 2016 election interference to produce any charges against either Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's presumptive November rival. “As long as I’m attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends,” Barr said.

Trump said later that this announcement surprised him. “I think if it was me, they would do it. I think for them, maybe they’re not going to,” Trump told reporters without identifying "them." “I’m surprised because Obama knew everything that was happening,” he said, offering no evidence or specific accusation.

What else is happening:

  • While New York State presses for federal aid to fill its $61 billion deficit, some lawmakers in Albany are eyeing major state taxes on the rich, Newsday's Michael Gormley reports.
  • Billionaire Trump backer Peter Thiel may have had enough of the president's flailing virus response.
  • Biden now has a nickname for Trump: "President Tweety."
  • Biden's pick of a running mate is still drawing suspense.
  • China pledged at the World Health Assembly, an annual decision-making meeting of the World Health Organization, to contribute $2 billion to fight coronavirus, while the U.S. called that a bid to forestall scrutiny on how the virus spread.
  • Italy's government issued 120 pages of norms for people to follow in reopening after its coronavirus lockdown. Churches there began resuming in-person worship.

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